Martha swung the metal disc to the side and put her eye up to the glass. It took a moment to adjust her gaze to the smallness of the lens. In the hallway stood the health inspector. He had returned.
She recognised the shape of his cranium and its familiar sheen. He wore his silver name badge far too high, just underneath his left collar. Michael Isthmus.
At her Urban Beekeeper’s Group, Michael Isthmus had quite a reputation as a ‘botherer’. Swimming against a tide of popular support for the bees, he’d been diligently policing the New York City Council’s ban on city beekeeping for the past five years. He was charged with the job of monitoring hundreds of covert beekeepers who were establishing hives all over the city.
Martha smiled to herself as she remembered the difficulty he had pronouncing his own name, a tongue tripping over a peninsula of sharp and slippery consonants.
Last week he’d served her a notification insisting on the removal of her bees.
‘We’ve had a formal complaint.’
He had stood at the threshold. The bold blue logo of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene embroidered on his shirt.
Martha leant against the frame of the doorway, ‘A complaint about what?’
Michael Isthmus had frowned and peered over her shoulder into the apartment. The yellow corridor extended before him like an invitation, bright with light and indoor plants.
‘The bees. Apis mellifera.’ He reached into a folder and made an extravagant flourish of paper. Isthmus took out a highlighter and underscored three lines. Martha caught only fragments of his conversation – ‘swarming bee movement’, ‘interferes with traffic’, ‘market honey’– as she observed him speak. His tongue seemed to have taken on a life of its own, wildly lisping through bureaucratic discourse. She had eventually, but gently, closed the door on him. His monotone voice droned a litany of complaints through the wood. Martha waited inside for his retreat.
Through the lace curtains of her living room Martha observed the inspector pace back and forth on the city street below her apartment. He gazed up at her window and raised his hand as if to wave, but then appeared to think better of it. ‘I’ll be back, Miss Winsome,’ Michael Isthmus had called.
And indeed, he was. The knock came again, more insistent. She kept watch through the peephole and dared him to look her in the eye. Instead she felt a shuffle of papers nudge under the door.
Martha kept to the house for weeks after Isthmus’ second visit. She’d chewed her nails down to the quick, but emerged resolved and climbed the stairs to the rooftop of her brownstone armed with emptied frames and harvesting equipment. Martha felt the white fabric of her suit chafe between her legs. The bulk of her body shifted slowly with the ascent and she regretted the second serve of deep-crust apple pie she had eaten the night before.
On the rooftop she paused and inhaled the scent of her honey rising in the day’s warm air. Rectangular rooftop planters spilled shades of purple and green as they overflowed with lavender, clover and New England asters. The wall of Columbia University’s Butler Library loomed behind her.
Martha surprised herself when she made the decision to defy the law and keep bees. For thirty years she had supervised and managed the collection in the American Literature reading room on the fifth floor of Butler Library. When it came time to retire she felt both strangely elated and filled with loss. Life alone in the city had opened before her like a gaping seam, and she wondered whether to unravel or restitch it.
At the local Greenmarket, between the garlic bulbs and fresh basil, Martha had noticed a quote above a farmer’s stand in bold italics: We must take up a little life into our pores – a line from Walden. Martha had smiled as she remembered the quotation. After months spent working with one of the academics from the English Department she knew Thoreau’s works intimately. Martha was fond of Walden, she liked the way it challenged people’s unquestioning acceptance of life.
As she stood at the farmer’s stand he handed her a plastic spoonful of honey and asked if she lived locally. The honey gummed her mouth closed, so Martha had simply nodded. A bass note thumped out over the square
‘Do you have access to a rooftop?’
Martha nodded again, uncertain as to what he was suggesting.
The grocer grinned and pointed to a painted beehive in front of him. A cartoon bee with a large Urban Beekeeper’s Group logo on its chest spruiked the benefits of honey. ‘How do you feel about becoming an apiarist?’
By the time the bees were installed on her rooftop Martha hadn’t minded that it was illegal for New Yorkers to keep bees. Deemed a harmful, wild animal in a protective and over-legislated climate, they were banned by the city council as dangerous, a threat to human life. The Urban Beekeeper’s group had insisted that if she was really serious about becoming an apiarist, she purchase at least three guides to keeping hives. Her personal library now contained: Honey Bees – a City Companion, The Easy Bee, and Planet of the Apiarist: a Guide to Modern Beekeeping. She spent hours tucked up in bed reading the ‘DOs & DON’Ts’ of keeping bees only to find the information repetitive and tiresome. It was only later, when she was re-shelving the books, that she recognised several faces of the UBKG on the dust jackets.
Martha was thrilled with her new role as an apiarist. She liked the fact that her neighbour, Frank, now described her as an urban naturalist. It was true. Beekeeping did make Martha feel like a naturalist. Framed by the hulking outline of the Butler Library she felt as if she were defying the odds, a woman at one with nature in one of the busiest cities in the world.
Now, just a year later, she donned a gauze head mask and readied the smoker like a professional. Puffs of smoke plumed away from her and into the small clouds of bees as they rose from the hive. Martha always felt a little like Frank Baum’s Tin Man when she held her small metal can.
‘I could while away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers,’ Martha sang quietly through the gauze. Her voice reverberated within the cloth.
With a blunt knife she worked at the hive cover until it cracked free and began gently removing individual frames. The first frames in the top box were half empty. She lifted the uppermost box off and puffed smoke into the second. In this box all the frames were heavy, each hexagon capped and full, dense with honey. She smoked the hive once again and brushed away the bees.
Martha carefully lifted four frames from the hive and placed them in a bucket to extract the honey later. She slid some clean frames back into the box and recapped the hive.
As she pierced the comb a bulb of golden sunlight swelled onto the knife. Martha could never resist a first taste. She lifted the gauze and let her tongue smooth over the honey. She closed her eyes and let herself savour the floral harvest that was as gentle and summery as the day itself.
‘Martha! Miss Winsome!’
Confused, and jolted from her thoughts, Martha looked around for the speaker. Her heart was hammering.
Martha shielded her eyes from the early morning glare. Over on the next building, which was a storey higher than hers, was the health inspector. He waved his clipboard toward her and pointed at the hives.
‘I see you’re harvesting!’ each communication came as statement, diffused only by the distance and breeze. He waved again and appeared to grin lopsidedly at her.
Martha waved back, but decided not to speak. If she kept her mask and suit on he couldn’t prove it was her, or that the bees were hers. The last thing she needed was a fine from the Health and Mental Hygiene Department. Who was Isthmus? A frustrated ex-cop? The beekeeping group hadn’t mentioned inspectors would be this vigilant. She hurriedly threw the remaining equipment in the bucket and clumsily opened the door to the stairwell.
‘Good harvest?’ Isthmus had shaped his hands into a cone and was using them as a megaphone.
Martha turned and was temporarily blinded as the sun breached the shadow of the building. Isthmus stood waving, illuminated and framed by the sunlight and clouds like Icarus in flight.
Later, in the comfort of her kitchen, Martha warmed a butter knife in hot water and sliced off the wax casing. It came away like a curling strip of yellow birch and revealed a bank of golden honey inside. She thought briefly of Isthmus standing on the rooftop and lowered the frames into the extractor and cranked the shaft violently. As she wound the handle Martha visualized the honey spinning inside – a great sweet vat of bee juice oozing and separating from the comb.
The next morning, as soon as she saw dust motes begin to spin in the early light, Martha stirred herself into action. She liked to dress in white on market days; under the stall’s white umbrella, it made her feel happy and light, as if she were a country woman selling wares by the side of the road in a bygone era. Bee-you-tiful honey was all hers.
Martha shaped her configuration of honey jars into a pyramid, and tucked a stray white curl behind her ear. Two jars were unstacked and ready for the taking, and a fan of ice-cream paddles to use for tasting. A wooden honey dipper stood upright in an open jar.
She loved the bustle of market days. As if the city had sprouted overnight, hot expanses of concrete were transformed into an organic palette of citrus, cherry and avocado green. Squealing notes of bus deceleration were masked by conversations about heirloom seeds and punnets. The Greenmarket was an opportunity for her to quietly observe young couples buying their weekly vegetables, chefs dashing out for an essential last ingredient, families on a Sunday stroll.
At ten in the morning she first spotted him in the crowd. He was in the next aisle purchasing tomatoes. Martha was in the middle of delivering a swirl of honey to a five-year-old when he caught her eye. He was in uniform; a large navy canvas jacket covered a blue shirt. His grey hair was curly and wild, far more unkempt than when she last saw him. Martha prayed it was just a coincidence he was at the market.
She sat down and averted her gaze. It was childish, but she tucked her hands underneath her legs and crossed her fingers for good luck. Her heart thumped in her chest and she heard a quiet humming in her ears.
He was suddenly before her at the table. ‘Hello Miss Winsome.’ Martha recognised the tongue as it came tumbling out over his teeth. In his hand he held a jar of Bee-you-tiful honey, gently oozing the liquid from one side to the next as he held it up to the light.
She decided to play innocent. ‘Please, call me Martha. I’m sorry, do I know you?’
He smiled quizzically then sighed.
‘Perhaps only through our correspondence.’ He placed the honey jar down on the table and put his hands in his pockets.
‘Was it a good harvest?’ The inspector shuffled nervously and looked her in the eye. Martha noticed he was tired, the skin was dark and ashen beneath his eyes. Yet his eyes were warm and kind. He looked away and she remembered him framed by the sky.
Martha looked to the other stallholders for support. Suddenly, they were all intensely busy.
‘Would you like a taste Mr …?’
‘Isthmus. Michael. Call me Michael.’
She reached forward and dolloped some honey onto a stick. A drip threatened to fall between them.
She nudged the taster closer to his mouth. ‘Go on.’
Michael slowly opened his mouth and moved forward to taste the honey. He turned and held up his palm, halting her advance.
He smiled, ‘No. No thank you.’
The inspector blushed and watched the slow motion slide of honey onto the table. Both were still and looked at the glob of honey.
He quickly grabbed a jar from the top of the pyramid and lifted a rolled five dollar note from the front pocket of his jacket. It looked like a cigarette.
‘I’d like to take this honey though,’ he added, ‘for sampling.’
Martha was uncertain. ‘You sure you don’t want to taste it first?’
He shook his head and started to retreat into the crowd. Martha watched the disappearing shape of his jacket until she could see him no more.
That night at the UBKG meeting Martha was depressed. She’d been trying to listen attentively to the presentation on honey-based spirits and beers but couldn’t focus on the fermentation process. She didn’t even feel like tasting a honey-based gin.
‘Isthmus bothering you again Martha?’ one of the group’s founders, Gregory, piped up. A groan dissembled across the gathering. Mentioning his name was like blaspheming with this group.
‘Didn’t you see him at the market on Sunday?’ Martha queried. A few of the beekeepers shrugged and continued sampling the mix of spirits.
‘It was a Sunday for goodness’ sake. Whatever happened to government hours? I bet he’s going to shut me down and charge a $2000 fine. Even Michelle Obama has bees!’ She slumped against the wall and looked around the room for a fellow apiarist to join her cause. ‘It’s like legislating against birds!’
The night before, Martha had dreamt she was hovering over a field of clover. Floating just above the Earth her fingers trailed in the grass and were cushioned by the field. The low buzz of worker bees began to vibrate the air and Martha found herself suspended above a man covered in bees. The cloak of insects seethed and crawled all over his jaw and face, a living beard. She recognised the blue of his eyes, pleading. Michael Isthmus. Martha floated and watched the honey bees crawling into his nostrils and into his ears and did nothing.
‘Was he wearing his uniform?’ Gregory looked up from his measuring cup.
Martha was confused. ‘Yes. Why wouldn’t he be?’
He laughed, ‘Well, most of us haven’t seen or heard from Isthmus in six months. Things have been pretty quiet.’ Gregory stopped to consider the implications, ‘I heard he’d retired.’
Back at home, the bubbles were disappearing fast in the bathtub. Her knees poked up through the soapy water and met in the middle to form a peak, suds gathering around her thighs like clouds surrounding an unexplored mountain pass. Martha placed her palms on her face and felt heat radiate through her eyelids. Through the cracks made by her fingers she looked down at the gentle mound of her belly and felt the heaviness of her breasts weigh on her chest. Her nipples shaped and responded slightly as she thought of them, then softened again as the idea passed.
She thought of the gift on her kitchen table. Shaped like an Asian noodle box, the dark brown packaging danced with a filigree of golden bees and finished in a flourish of black and gold striped ribbon. Underneath a chocolatier’s sticker had been scratched away, only the adhesive remained. Martha had found the box on her doorstep earlier that evening, after she had returned home from the beekeeper’s meeting. Chocolate-covered bees. The gift tag was signed:
Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it. Michael Isthmus.
Thoreau again. How did he know? It was a very strange coincidence. She couldn’t work out if the package was a gift or a threat.
Martha remembered her student days in the early seventies. She pictured herself and her friends below the city in their favourite cafe, reclining on great mounds of Turkish rugs and cushions while smoking French cigarettes. The owner of the cafe was a Mexican known as Jesus. He always offered his patrons a handful of exotic chocolate-covered bees from a glass jar on the counter. The arrival of the gift had conjured up the slight nutty flavours of her past.
She slid underneath the bath water and enjoyed the sensation of being submerged. The muted sounds of her apartment suddenly became clear. Someone was knocking at the door. It was very late. Martha answered the door in her dressing gown, her long steely white hair dripped wet against her neck. She had seen Isthmus through the peephole.
Isthmus smiled awkwardly and looked down at his shoes. He wasn’t in uniform and wore jeans and a plaid blue shirt. His tongue started stumbling and hurriedly suggested that she’d need to look out for something about by-laws and health codes and ‘objectionable bee behaviours’ such as ‘stinging and swarming’ or the authorities would be all over her.
She didn’t understand. ‘Are you threatening me Mr Isthmus?’
He looked up at her and she recognised his pleading eyes. He paused and started again, ‘I’m trying to tell you they’ve been legalised. Today. You are allowed to keep your bees.’
Martha shook her head and frowned, ‘They didn’t say anything about it at the meeting.’
‘They wouldn’t know yet. The official press release is tomorrow. Here,’ he waved a piece of paper toward her excitedly, ‘I’ve got a draft of the Health Code. Article 161.’
She scanned the paper and tightened her gown around her. Suddenly she felt conscious of the mounds of her stomach and breasts against the chenille. Isthmus stepped back against the railing and exhaled deeply. Martha was unsure if he was exhausted or relieved. Her neighbour, Frank, came shuffling past with grocery bags and gave the pair a knowing smile while he organised his keys.
Martha handed back the form to Michael and offered him her hand.
‘Would you like a cup of tea to go with those chocolate bees?’
Above them, in the darkness of their white-boxed cities, rapid-fire beatings of bee wings hum in confluence with New York’s air-conditioning units and cool the hive. Late returning foragers wheel yellow panniers of pollen home as other bees tend the comb and nurture larvae. Inside, bees unravel the day’s narrative of nectar and bloom, the direction of sunlight configured as a dance of city and sky.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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